Last Updated: Thursday, 30 October 2014, 14:31 GMT

Nigeria: Ogboni society, including its history, structure, rituals and ceremonies; information on membership and the consequences of refusing to join

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Publication Date 14 November 2012
Citation / Document Symbol NGA104213.E
Related Document Nigéria : information sur la société Ogboni, y compris son historique, sa structure, ses rituels et ses cérémonies; adhésion et conséquences associées à un refus de se joindre à cette société
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Nigeria: Ogboni society, including its history, structure, rituals and ceremonies; information on membership and the consequences of refusing to join, 14 November 2012, NGA104213.E, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/50c849842.html [accessed 30 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

1. General Background

The Ogboni society should not be confused with the Reformed Ogboni Society, which was created by Christians in the 1900s (Professor 5 Oct. 2012; Ribeiro Junior May 2008, 20).

Sources indicate that information about the Ogboni society is limited (Professor 5 Oct. 2012; Ribeiro Junior May 2008, 21). Several sources also indicate that they are referred to as a "secret" society or as a "cult" (Professor 5 Oct. 2012; Norway Aug. 2006, Sec. 4.1). In a chapter on organized crime in Nigeria in the book entitled Traditional Organized Crime in the Modern World, Obi N. I. Ebbe catalogues the Ogboni secret society as an organized crime organization (Ebbe 2012, 178). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.

1.1 Historical Background

In his masters' thesis for a degree in archaeology at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Ademir Ribeiro Junior indicates that it is not known when the Ogboni society was created (Ribeiro Junior May 2008, 21). According to him, the oldest text referencing the Ogboni society is from 1884, where it was described as a secret society (ibid., 23). He indicates that it was an [translation] "assembly of elders" that created a cult based on the cosmology of Yorubas (ibid., 20). Sources note that the Ogboni society emerged among the Yorubas (Professor 5 Oct. 2012; Mazama 26 Jan. 2009, 479). The Ogboni performed religious, political and judicial functions (ibid.; Ribeiro Junior May 2008, 20; Professor 5 Oct. 2012).

In an article published in the Encyclopedia of African Religion, Ama Mazama, professor of African religion at Temple University, indicates that the Ogboni considered themselves as the "privileged intermediaries between the living and the ancestors" (Mazama 2009, 479). They venerated mother Earth (ibid.; Ribeiro Junior May 2008, 20) or goddess Earth (Professor 5 Oct. 2012). Sources indicate that the Ogbonis acted as the "check and balance" against the power of the king to the point of having the authority to remove him if necessary (ibid.; Mazama 2009, 480). George B. N. Ayittey, an economist in residence in the Department of Economics at American University and author among other books of Indigenous African Institutions (The Independent Institute n.d.), indicates in an article published in the Social Research journal that even though the Ogbonis had judicial functions, their primary role was the preservation of the "Ife oracle" (2010, 1193). According to Mazama,

priests of the Obgoni [sic] society are often called on to consult the oracle to determine a number of sensitive issues, such as ancestral support for the King. In fact, members of the Obgoni [sic] society are guardians and protectors of the divine oracle and laws. (2009, 479)

In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a professor of law and forensic science at the University of Leicester indicated that during the pre-colonial era, the Ogboni society was the highest court in Yorubaland, with the power to judge powerful individuals that did not face justice in the open judicial system (Professor 5 Oct. 2012). He further indicated that during the colonial era and after Nigeria's independence, the Ogboni "had no formal role to play in society" (ibid.).

1.2 Current Status

The professor further added that "since the people no longer had any use for them as their protectors, they now protect any of the self-centered interests of their members by blackmail, intimidation, and murder" (ibid.). Corroborating information could not be found by the Research Directorate among the sources consulted within the time constraints of this Response. The professor contends that the Ogboni society,

[i]n most Yoruba parts of Nigeria, ... have no real power whatsoever. The only Yoruba parts of Nigeria where they still have some real influence on the traditional administration of the cities are in the Egba, Egbado and Abeokuta parts of Nigeria. These would correspond roughly to pockets of areas in Ogun State and Lagos State. Also, in some rural villages and small towns along in the borders of Ogun State with Oyo, Osun and Ondo States, they might still be able to intimidate pockets of people. (ibid.)

However, according to Mazama, the Ogboni still have "quite significant" influence and power over the affairs of the nation (Mazama 2009, 480). Nevertheless, she also indicates that the political integrity of both the Ogboni society and the Reformed Ogboni Fraternity "has been called into question given their strong links with Freemasonry, the Rotary Club, or the Rosicrucian Brotherhood" (ibid.). Sources indicate that some Ogboni members are from the elite (Norway Aug. 2006, Sec. 4.1; Nigerian Observer 19 Feb. 2009), "including the Police, Judiciary, government establishment and traditional institutions [which] makes members of the cult to be seemingly above the law" (ibid.). Similarly, Ebbe contends that Ogboni members "run all kinds of businesses, both legitimate and illegitimate, without any government interference [and] the societies support political candidates who can protect their enterprises" (2012, 178).

1.3 Structure

According to Mazama, all Ogbonis are under the authority of the political leader, referred to as the Alafin, who has the authority to convoke the priests into "extraordinary sessions" (2012, 480). However, the professor indicated that the structure of the Ogboni society is a "secret that only an Ogboni member can answer," risking death by poisoning (5 Oct. 2012). Corroborating or additional information on the structure of the Ogboni Society could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

1.4 Rituals and Ceremonies

The professor at the University of Leicester indicated that particularities about the rituals and ceremonies of the Ogboni society are a "secret that only an Ogboni member can answer," risking his or her own death (5 Oct. 2012). Corroborating or additional information on the rituals and ceremonies of the Ogboni Society could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

2. Membership

According to Mazama, membership is open to Yorubas and other ethnicities, and that men and women are eligible for initiation within the society, although the "predominance of male elders is undeniable" (2009, 480).

The professor indicated that the society is "potentially very dangerous for individuals who join them" (5 Oct. 2012). He also indicated that even though positions within the Ogboni society are not inherited,

[i]f one person's parent was a member of the Ogboni Society, and that person had been exposed to their activities (e.g. meetings held at his or her parents' house while the child was present so that over the years the child grew up knowing the identities of the Ogboni; or, the parent deliberately pledged that his or her child would become a member; or, if the child had been used as an assassin by the Ogboni in the sense that he or she had been the "courier" who went into a target's compound and added poison to the water source or whatever), that child would be expected to join). So, in essence only someone who has had a history with them in a very close manner can be intimidated into joining. And if this were in the Egba, Egbado or Abeokuta areas of Ogun State in particular (or within that region generally), their intimidation might work. Notwithstanding, the primary means of membership is voluntary. In most situations, individuals deliberately and voluntarily join these societies because they want power, financial rewards, and success…. (Professor 5 Oct. 2012)

A Nigerian Observer article reports the case of a young man who is reportedly being "hunted" by Ogboni chieftains after he refused to take his late father's position in the society given his Christian beliefs (The Nigerian Observer 19 Feb. 2009). One of his family members reportedly said to the Nigerian Observer that, as of February 2009, the man had not returned to his home since 2007 "because of the potential threat to his life" (ibid.). Corroborating information could not be found by the Research Directorate among the sources consulted within the time constraints of this Response.

3. Transnational Activity

Mazama indicates that the Ogboni society was re-created in Bahia, Brazil, during the early 19th Century when the Yorubas became a major cultural group in that region (2009, 480). According to the professor, people in countries such as the United States have joined the Ogboni society over the last 15 years as a "way of connecting with their indigenous roots" (5 Oct. 2012). Corroborating information could not be found by the Research Directorate among the sources consulted within the time constraints of this Response.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.

References

Ayittey, George B. N. 2010. "Traditional Institutions and the State of Accountability in Africa." Social Research. Vol. 77, No. 4.

Ebbe, Obi N. I. 2012. "Organized Crime in Nigeria." Traditional Organized Crime in the Modern World: Responses to Economic Change. Edited by Dina Siegel and Henk van de Bunt. New York: Springer.

The Independent Institute. N.d. " George N. N. Ayittey." [Accessed 13 Nov. 2012]

Mazama, Ama. 2009. "Ogboni Society." Encyclopedia of African Religion. Edited by Ama Mazama and Molefi Kete Asante. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publication.

The Nigerian Observer. 19 February 2009. "Cultists Vow to Eliminate Man for Refusing Initiation." [Accessed 4 Oct. 2012]

Norway. August 2006. Geir Skogseth. Landinfo: Country of Origin Information Centre. Fact-finding Trip to Nigeria (Abuja, Lagos and Benin City) 12-26 March 2006. [Accessed 4 Oct. 2012]

Professor, University of Leicester. 5 October 2012. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Ribeiro Junior, Ademir. May 2008. Parafernália das mães-ancestrais : As máscaras gueledé, os edan ogboni e a construção do imaginário sobre as "sociedades secretas" africanas no Recôncavo Baiano. Master's Thesis. University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. [Accessed 4 Oct. 2012]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: Attempts to contact researchers from the following organizations were unsuccessful: Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University; Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional, Brazil; Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria.

Internet sites, including: AllAfrica.com; Amnesty International; Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation; Denmark — Danish Immigration Service; ecoi.net; Factiva; Freedom House; The Guardian [Nigeria]; Human Rights Watch; Nigeria — Ministry of Interior, Police Force; Nigerian Tribune; The Punch; The Reformed Ogboni Fraternity; The Sun News [Nigeria]; UN — Integrated Regional Information Networks, Refworld, Reliefweb; US — Central Intelligence Agency, Department of State, Overseas Security Advisory Council.

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at http://www.irb-cisr.gc.ca/en/. Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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